In an attempt to limit or even eliminate the illegal trade in endangered animals, the Chinese government has announced harsh new punishments for traffickers, hunters and consumers. Those caught eating rare wildlife face the strictest penalties — up to ten years in prison — according to a China Daily report.
The changes to the country's criminal code were handed down from the the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top lawmaking body, on April 24. People apprehended for knowingly buying poached animals face up to three years in prison. The discrepancy in punishment for those eating and those buying rare creatures is apparently intentional, as lawmakers seek to stamp out demand first. Ostensibly, a decline in market demand would then force illegal hunters to look elsewhere for profits.
Four hundred and twenty creatures currently comprise China's list of rare animals. Perhaps the most well known of these are giant pandas, Asian black bears, golden monkeys and pangolins. Many of the creatures on the Chinese list are classified as endangered species — their populations threatened by habitat loss, pollution and poaching.
Demand for rare animal parts was once fueled largely by their use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Recently, as China's middle and upper classes have seen explosive economic growth, buying and consuming endangered animal parts became a way for the newly affluent to display wealth and prestige. Such trends have, at times, successfully been countered by aggressive public service campaigns featuring celebrities. This is especially true in the case of a national, non-profit anti-shark fin effort spearheaded by former NBA star Yao Ming.
The new laws somewhat curiously do not address the issue of wild animals killed for non-food purposes. Beijing very publicly destroyed three tons of ivory after conducting a national campaign against the trade in elephant tusks. However, few people purchase ivory for TCM purposes anymore, and today ivory is largely bought by wealthy Chinese in the form of jewelry and carved statues.
The new prohibitions against eating endangered species may have their largest effects in southern China, especially in the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan, where an estimated 70 percent of the smuggling in black market animals in China takes place. Not coincidentally, all three provinces are in close proximity to, or share borders with, Southeast Asian countries labeled by the United Nations as hotspots for the international trafficking of wild animals.
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